Morality Based on Consent Isn't Morality at All
The #MeToo story about Aziz Ansari sheds light on the real roots of America's sexual crisis.
What defines morality? Are there objective standards, or is it merely subjective whim and the passion of the moment? The answers to these basic questions form the root of modern thinking about sex, and they also reveal why morality based solely on consent isn’t morality at all.
The #MeToo movement of women (and a few men) telling stories of how they’ve been sexually mistreated — in all its various iterations — has gripped the nation over the last several months. Perhaps something good will come of it. Yet there are two major problems with the movement, too. First, innocent men can be ruined by false accusations. This has happened in colleges around the country, as we’ve documented before, and now it’s happening to other men in all sorts of stations. Second, and far more important, #MeToo is revealing the pathetic limitations of our culture’s low bar for morality.
Americans of a certain age fell in love with a sitcom called “Friends,” in which a bunch of foolish but affable 20-somethings made 10 seasons of episodes derived almost entirely from jokes about sex. It’s but one example of countless shows and movies produced by the very same Hollywood that is now dealing with the proverbial sexual skeletons in its own closet. Hollywood endeavored to validate the idea of “free love” first born in the 1960s but instead revealed how bankrupt American morality had become.
Fast forward 25 years and #MeToo is, at least in part, the direct result of a culture that taught young men that sexual trysts were normal and their due.
That brings us to Aziz Ansari, an actor/comedian who just won a Golden Globe earlier this month for best actor in his Netflix series, “Master Of None.” At those Golden Globes, he happily participated in the self-righteous ritual of Hollywood celebrities announcing “Time’s Up” on sexual assault. And yet his time was up just days later.
A woman going by the pseudonym “Grace” recounted her story of alleged assault at Ansari’s hands last fall. We’ll avoid the lurid details, which you can read at your own risk. Aside from the obvious fact that his behavior (and that of any man who behaves likewise) is absolutely wrong, one can also see why a morality based on consent would leave him thinking he did nothing wrong, and why Grace’s tale is in some ways merely one of an unpleasant date. At a minimum, the woman sent mixed signals — participating in some sexual activity with him before withdrawing and then participating again — only to later claim she wrestled with her own emotions the entire time. He did eventually stop when it became clear she wanted him to. So part of Ansari’s crime was his inability to read minds.
“It was fun meeting you last night,” he texted the next day. Not for her it wasn’t, which she then let him know in no uncertain terms in a reply text.
The result of her publicly telling her story? Lectures to men to tune in to women’s signals, and a rehearsal of the meaning of consent. And admonishment to women to more fully take charge of such situations and emphatically say no instead of giving what Grace said were partially “non-verbal cues” of her discomfort.
Such lessons are woefully inadequate. Much like being drunk — and this and many of these sorts of encounters already involve ample amounts of alcohol — the euphoria experienced by the human body during sexual encounters is really tough to rein in, especially for men.
That’s why objective morality is critical, so we can avoid lamentable encounters altogether. One is hardly equipped to give consent that won’t later be regretted or revoked when one is passionately caught up in inebriated physical intimacy with no moral compass for guidance.
Moreover, sex isn’t only physical. As David French correctly argues, “As much as some sexual revolutionaries try to drain the spiritual and emotional meaning from sex, it is still the most intimate form of human contact, and it leaves marks on a person’s very soul.” That’s why the “casual sex” Hollywood portrays is a horrible lie, and why Aziz and Grace failed so miserably to communicate.
Erick Erickson adds a simple truth, writing, “The Christian sexual ethic is much ridiculed and maligned in this day and age, but it perhaps speaks more loudly and clearly than ever before. Date, get to know each other, learn to read each other’s emotions and thinking, get married, then have sex. At the very least, stop with the hookups and the one night stands.”
French observes, “But to ask some people to refrain from seeking sex whenever they want it is like asking ancient pagans to melt their golden idols. The pursuit of sex is a central focus of their lives, and the liberation from sexual morality is for them a central achievement of modern ethics. Even as the collateral damage mounts, they insist that just this or that tiny tweak to their fundamentally libertine hedonism will protect people from shame, guilt, and rage while still preserving absolute sexual freedom. It won’t work. It can’t work. Human beings were not created to live like that. Morality based on consent alone has always been doomed to fail.”
As long as consent is the only rule for acceptable behavior, and as long as people cling to their idol of sex liberated from traditional Judeo-Christian morality, #MeToo isn’t going to change a single thing. And millions more broken people will continue to suffer.